Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
- William Shakespeare
Off the beaten path, in the town of LaGrange, Kentucky, stands Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, a medium security prison that houses some 1100 inmates. In an effort to rehabilitate the inmates and prepare them to potentially re-enter society, numerous educational programs are available to those who wish to participate, but one of those programs stands apart from the rest as a unique and powerful way for the prisoners to express themselves and find greater meaning in their lives. Shakespeare Behind Bars tells the 9-month tale of some 20 inmates as they cast their parts, learn their lines, and face internal emotional struggles in preparation to perform the Bard's final play: The Tempest.
Aside from what is dramatized in film and television, the average person knows very little about prison life and even less about the people who live it. On the whole, prisoners are a discarded element of society, cast aside, generalized by their crimes, and avoided or forgotten. We don't want to think about them as individuals with the same human emotions as the rest of us, because it is difficult and painful, especially in light of the heinous crimes many of them have committed. Shakespeare Behind Bars seeks to break down those walls, taking the viewer through the good and bad of the individuals who spend the majority of their lives in this confined and restricted environment, paying for the crimes they committed against others.
The documentary begins in September of 2002. After a summer hiatus, the returning members of the program are getting back together to start the long process that will culminate in a full Shakespearean production in May of the following year. Each year participating inmates at Luther Luckett perform a different Shakespearean play. To participate, not only must you be sponsored by a current member, but you must stay out of trouble. Curt Tofteland is a local volunteer whose day job is with the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, and as the season begins, he is reuniting with those he's directed in the past and some new faces joining the program for the first time. What we soon learn is that the participants have spent the summer months preparing for this day independent of Curt. They have read the play, talked about its meaning, and have decided as a group who will play each part in the performance before their director even arrives on the first day. This presents an interesting dynamic, and one of the hallmarks of the Behind Bars program is that the casting is less about acting talent and experience and more centered around the prisoners finding roles that will help them explore their own life struggles for acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness in the hope of growing as human beings.
Through the course of the program, we meet numerous inmates who are involved in this particular production of The Tempest. Hal, as the lead character Prospero, is a homosexual who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, attended Bible college, became a preacher, and got married before realizing his life was a lie. Sammie (Triculo) is a soft-spoken and gentle hulk of a man who has been with the program since its inception and has lined up a place to live and a computer programming job in preparation for an upcoming parole hearing. The villainous Antonio is played by Leonard, an intelligent philosopher with compelling perspective who really drinks in the totality of Shakespeare's words in hopes of understanding their meaning at the core. "Red" (Miranda) is the bisexual child of a Black father and a White mother; he has spent a lifetime trying to find himself. Lastly, there's "Big G" in the role of Caliban. "G" is more at peace with his situation than most, and he takes it upon himself to be a mentor to as many as he can.
Each of these cast members is participating in the program for reasons far beyond something to fill the boredom in prison. They have committed horrible crimes against others, and they are struggling to face what they have done, using the Shakespeare Behind Bars program to work through their own inner turmoil. Part of what makes the film so interesting is that each of the inmates is at a different stage of this process. Some maintain they have been wronged by the system, while others have broken through to genuine remorse and acceptance of their actions. It is a process for each of them, and some will find a light at the end of the dark tunnel they've constructed for themselves, while others will simply continue doing what they've always done. Early in the film, the point is made about the difference between an "inmate" who is trying to better himself and a "convict" who is just another criminal behind bars. These men are trying hard to be "inmates", and perhaps one day, something more than that.
What makes the film so powerful and effective is that it does not glorify, it does not sugar-coat, it does not attempt to manipulate the situation such that we will feel unwarranted sympathy for the members of this program. It tells it like it is, warts and all, and the reality of what takes place during this 9-month journey is incredibly compelling. Perhaps the most effective editing choice in the entire film is that we meet these dynamic personalities and see the passion for their art before we learn their crimes, and it is emotionally jarring as we are forced to question how we really feel about these people and their circumstances. At one point in the film, a certain character may be helping another inmate break through a difficult acting barrier, delivering insightful commentary to the camera crew about life and morality, and you think, "This guy really gets it. I wonder what he did to land himself here." Then you find out, and it's horrible, and your heart just sinks.
Shakespeare is arguably the most difficult writing to perform, and these inmates are far from experts in the dramatic arts, but there is a reason these works have remained benchmark classics for some 400 years. Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse of the human condition in a way unlike any other, and through performing his works, people learn so much about themselves and the world around them. That is what happens here for the inmates at Luther Luckett. Through the reading and performing, they see themselves in a more focused light and are forced to confront the horrors of their past, the limited opportunities in their present, and what possible future may exist for them down the road. For some, the result is a major emotional breakthrough that just might save their lives.
While we do get some insight into prison life or what it is like to put together a performance of The Tempest, Shakespeare Behind Bars is first and foremost about people, and it seeks to uncover layers of the human condition we rarely get to see. Most of these men have committed horrible acts of inhumanity, and for some, even more than being released from prison, they desire nothing above finding a way to forgive themselves. The Shakespeare Behind Bars program, in some small part, gives them an outlet and support system to perhaps achieve that growth, and watching their journey in this documentary is a fascinating experience, both intellectually and emotionally.
Shakespeare Behind Bars is presented in a 16x9 video transfer with anamorphic enhancement for widescreen monitors. The colors are a little muted at times, and there is some visible grain in outdoor sequences, plus a little edge enhancement; but for a hand-held low-budget documentary, it looks pretty good, and there is nothing that jumps out as being overly distracting.
The audio is a basic Dolby Digital 2.0 English track, and there is a good balance between the background music and the on-screen dialogue. There are a few times where the microphones don't pick up certain utterances as clearly as the rest, but again pointing to the style of this documentary, it is nothing unusual and certainly not a frequent issue.
The DVD itself comes in a standard case, and the menus are creatively done and easy to navigate. The only real drawback in this production is the loud and annoying promotional spots for other Shout! Factory titles. They are not the easiest to bypass, and they show up both on DVD insert and at the conclusion of the main feature. I may have been interested in the titles being promoted, but not in that obnoxious fashion.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
That said, credit must go to Shout! Factory for some wonderful special features. First off, there are three Audio Commentaries, and each of them is surprisingly good. In the case of a 93-minute documentary that was filmed over the period of 9 months, there is a wealth of information that just can't be included in the final film, and much of that is provided in these three commentaries. Two of them are with program founder Curt Tofteland, alongside inmates Jerry "Big G" Guenthner and Floyd Vaughn in the first and with Hal Cobb and Leonard Ford in the second. These are particularly interesting because we get some raw perspective on the program and prison life in general from the participants themselves. The third commentary is with director Hank Rogerson and producer Jilann Spitzmiller. It too is an interesting listen, because they have so much behind-the-scenes information to share and so many personal opinions about everything that weren't appropriate for the film itself. It's pretty rare that you can find 3 good audio commentaries on a DVD, but I'd recommend anyone who enjoyed the documentary to spend some time with these.
Also included are 11 Deleted Scenes that run approximately 30 minutes in length (with a convenient Play All). The two primary themes in these scenes are additional information about the crimes of characters that weren't as heavily focused on in the final film as well as some longer sequences of the group rehearsing and performing. It is understandable why this material was trimmed out of the final product, but all of it is interesting, and its inclusion here just adds to the overall story. Even after spending many hours with this DVD, I find I still want to know so much more about these people.
9 Performance Selects showcase brief uninterrupted performances from the ultimate production that was presented to friends, family, and other inmates at the end of the season. The film itself is not about the performance, but the process these individuals go through, so there is no real place for a lot of this material, but it sure is wonderful to see, because some of it is really quite good.
Finally, there is a set of information cards that details the current status of most of the individuals shown in the film.
Shakespeare Behind Bars is a compelling and challenging piece of documentary filmmaking that takes us into Luther Luckett Correctional Complex for a small glimpse into the lives of inmates who have thrown away their freedom in exchange for decades in prison. It does not seek to manipulate the situation or make any kind of political statement; it simply shows us the reality of these lives and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. The 9 months summarized in this 93-minute film are at the same time uplifting and disheartening, inspiring and tragic, beautiful and horrifying, and at the end it is difficult to sort through all the emotions. It is an impressive work on a DVD with some wonderful extras, and I Highly Recommend it.